Young Alumna Honored for Work
with Katrina Survivors
"Survivors of Hurricane Katrina are afraid that the rest of the country will forget about them," says relief worker and community organizer Akudo Ejelonu '05. "There is still so much to be done." After a year of full-time service to Katrina survivors, Ejelonu has returned to Philadelphia with an impressive laurel: Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health and Roberto C. Goizueta Business School recognized her efforts with a Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin joined the university in saluting the recipients of the King awards, which were presented in a ceremony in Atlanta on Jan. 18. Ejelonu was honored for her work among the thousands of hurricane survivors who were displaced to Atlanta.
Ejelonu spent several months of early 2006 in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., doing debris removal and building projects, as well as helping people who were affected by the flood find and gain access to public resources. After training as a community organizer in the Center for Third World Organizing's Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program, she went to work for Saving Our Selves After Katrina. SOS is a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated not only to rebuilding and repairing coastal areas affected by the storm, but also to addressing the long-term issues of inequality that Katrina and Rita revealed. In Atlanta, she began by identifying families that had been displaced by the storm and interviewing them about their experiences.
"There was no database of people who were displaced and where they went," Ejelonu explains. "But people tend to know where other individuals from their communities live in a given city, so the best way to find hurricane survivors is to ask other survivors."
Ejelonu worked with about 100 families, helping them find services, aid and loans to restart their lives.
"Displaced people face so many challenges," she says. "They face discrimination when employers learn that they are 'from New Orleans'; they may be stereotyped as looters, or employers may be reluctant to hire them because they're afraid they are transient. And a lot of people would like to return to their homes. They have a right to, under international law, but that right isn't meaningful when they have no access to affordable housing or employment there. And a lot of neighborhoods still haven't been cleaned up, so there are environmental hazards preventing them from going home.
"There are also a lot of mental-health issues among survivors – post-traumatic stress disorder and depression aren't uncommon. It's easier to rebuild a house than to rebuild a spirit."
Ejelonu also organized gatherings of displaced people. "Because food and music are so important to the culture of New Orleans, we hosted events that featured New Orleans cuisine and music. The idea was to foster communication, information exchange and ultimately political action," she says.
"The organizing model we used, called community circles, operates on the premise that people within a given community are best equipped to identify that community's needs and solve its problems," she continues. "Through these meetings, we identified leaders and provided training and resources so that members of these communities will be able to fight for a place at the table when resources are allocated. Too many decisions about how federal money will be spent are being made without consulting the people who are most affected."
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